Travel

5 Days in Istanbul: Food, Friends, and being a Black Girl

June 26, 2016

As orientation came to a close and it was time to start planning our school schedule, Jasmine (my roommate) and I noticed that in just two weeks, we would have a two week vacation. This was my first time in Europe and I wanted to make sure I could explore as much of the continent as possible. Paris was also starting to be a bit chilly for me, so I wanted to make sure we would go somewhere warm. And so started the planning for a whirlwind adventure that took me to two continents, four countries, five cities and countless memories in 13 days.

Like any adventure that is motivated by a desire for sunlight, we headed east. Jasmine and I spent five days adventuring through Istanbul. We saw a lot and learned even more. Below are the highlights of our trip. It was hard not to include everything because it felt like every minute was an adventure – for better or worse.

Day 1 – Exhausted.

Day one in Istanbul went as smooth as a first day can be. The flights (Paris to Frankfurt. Frankfurt to Istanbul) were all fine. As we waited at the Frankfurt airport, we were a bit worried about the lack of non-Turkish people we saw around us. The TV nearby continuing to talk about the bombing in Ankara and the migrants shot at the border of Turkey were not helping at all. Were we the only non-Turkish people because no one was going there anymore? Afterall, there was a U.S. State Department travel warning on the country.
We boarded the plane and our fears were quieted as we saw other potential tourists boarding the plane as well.

Our Airbnb, that we thought we’d be sharing with the host, turned out to be more of a hostel situation. But we met some really cool people there. Although we lived in a very quiet part of Istanbul that was a bit far from the city center, the neighborhood was gorgeous. But come to think of it, no part of Istanbul was ugly. It was a very clean city with perfectly manicured lawns. We were staying on the top floor of the building and although the stairs were hell (no elevator), the view was amazing. The living room window overlooked a graveyard, the river and another side of the city.

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We found a Turkish restaurant along the water to get dinner from. Warning: Asking for butter for your complimentary bread will cost you! And the butter was terrible. It tasted, I assume, the way butter SHOULD taste: old, beaten milk. In addition, they charged us 4 extra Turkish Lira for my salad because “it was for two people.” But I was the only one who ate it. Other than that, the meal was really great and was a wonderful introduction to Turkish cuisine.

Day 2 – Tourist Attractions

Jasmine and I got an early-ish start to our day. We probably spent the first two hours trying to figure out the public transportation, and then finally we were on it for another hour. We went to the Southern European part of Istanbul where a lot of the main historical sites were. We had a whole path planned out, but after lunch, lots of photos ops and an inordinate amount of time in the Hagia Sophia, the sun had set and it was dinner time.

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WE were the tourist attraction!

While we were taking photos in front of the Blue Mosque, we were introduced to a phenomenon that confused us at first, then amused us and ultimately annoyed us. In retrospect, it’s mostly just amusing albeit being a bit sad.
Jasmine and I were taking turns taking photos of each other and random people (locals and maybe a few tourists) would come up and ask to take a picture WITH us. They were way too excited and it became very obvious very quickly that it was because of our skin. They would see us, get wide eyed, whisper to each other and finally one brave person in the group would come up to us with their camera (sometimes already clicking away) point to us, point to their group or their friend or themselves, and point to their camera: “Photo, photo.”

At first Jasmine and I thought they wanted us to take their photo, but nope! Even after we figured it out, we would pretend we thought that’s what they meant, in a futile attempt to diffusive the situation. I ended up being in more photos than Jasmine because I have a hard time saying no. We also agreed that a few more people came up to me than her – perhaps because my skin is darker?

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Trying to laugh off the awkwardness.

Trying to laugh off the awkwardness.

My 'what the hell just happened' face.

My ‘what the hell just happened’ face.

The other thing people were shamelessly curious about was our hair. We got non-stop questions about it! From EVERYONE. And of course the insistent touching. If you’re going to treat me like a walking talking tourist attraction, then please look, don’t touch – just like you would in a museum. This one guy came up and said something about my beautiful hair and asked me to take a picture with his super excited daughter, who, by the way, had beautiful brown ringlets (she’s the one with the green skirt in the photo above). But just because I thought her hair was pretty doesn’t mean I want to go up to her and take a picture.

If you’re going to treat me like a walking talking tourist attraction, then please look, don’t touch – just like you would in a museum.

This was at least a bit better than the people who were trying to take selfies with us as the background prop. In particular, I’m curious about what the captions of these photos are going to be on their Facebook pages and when they show it to their friends. “I MET A BLACK PERSON!!!”
All joking aside (not really, I was never joking), going to a place as a tourist and turning around only to end up being the attraction is the weirdest sensation. I’m not annoyed at the individuals (although some people were VERY annoying and would interrupt something we were doing to take a photo). I feel sorry for them that they have not been exposed to people that look like me. I feel uncomfortable that they think it’s ok to capture a moment just because you saw someone of a different skin color. I feel relieved that it was photos and smiles that they wanted and not screaming away in fear or rubbing my skin to see if the black came off (all true stories I’ve heard).

I feel a lot of things, but mostly I think I just feel confused. Why is it that big a deal to see someone that looks like me (we saw a FEW other Blacks in Istanbul, but not very many)? And why do you feel the need to take a picture of this?

Eventually we left behind our photoshoot session near the Blue Mosque because we were interrupted every few minutes (I wish I was exaggerating), by people wanting to take photos with us.

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We went to the Hagia Sophia (which is not very beautiful from the outside during the day) and it turned out you had to pay to get in. We were already in the line, and well, while in Istanbul, right? Wrong. It’s one of the most underwhelming buildings I’ve ever been in, and definitely the most underwhelming building I’ve ever paid to get into. As annoyed as we were to have had to pay to get inside, Jasmine and I stayed basically until they kicked us out. The lighting in there was amazing and there were a few nice corners.

That said, I’m not sure if it’s worth it unless you are a huge history buff: some of the ‘labeled’ displays were head scratchers: “These scratching on the rail were probably done by a Viking.” I’m not joking. That was a real label. In addition, when we went, they were re-doing parts of the building so half the main hall was boarded up. If I can’t see the whole thing, why should I pay the whole price?!
Jasmine and I were trying to travel on a budget and we didn’t realize we had to pay to enter most of the tourist locations (missing my DC museums right now). In reality though, it’s only about $10 so at least you can say you went once. And we got some great pics:

 

On our way out, we struck up a conversation with two other stragglers. It turned out one of them, Harish, had sat behind us on the plane from Frankfurt to Istanbul. The other one, Alp, lived in Turkey. The four of us had dinner together and they soon became our travel buddies. We had dinner at Mesale and it was probably the best meal I had while in Turkey. We got a platter to share and apple flavored hookah. There was live music and a traditional Turkish dance. The wait staff was really friendly. The place was lively but not too full and there was a good mix of locals and tourists. Definitely don’t miss it if and when you are in Istanbul.

Day 3 – Topkapi Palace

Ok, this post is getting pretty long so I’m going to try and just concentrate on the basics.
We hit the main part of Istanbul again (I think it’s known as Fatih). The Blue Mosque is free to enter, but only at none prayer times. Jasmine and I had bad timing when we tried to enter. Plus, apparently they wouldn’t have let me in with my tights (with a skirt to my knees). While we waited for Alp and Harish, we struck up a conversation with a British-Nigerian-American family. Nigerians are EVERYwhere. But apparently she hadn’t really experienced the obsessive picture taking that we had experienced and she was quite amused to see it happening.

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When we found the boys, we headed to Topkapi palace which was the home of many Sultans throughout the height of the Ottoman Empire. It was 30 Turkish Lira (TL) to get into the palace and then if you wanted to get into the Harem (which is actually where the whole court lived), then it’s another 15TL. I wish I could have paid 15TL for just that part. The rest of the palace was just a regular museum with really pretty plates and some swords and jewelry. The Harem, on the other hand, was breathtakingly beautiful and was a showcase in architectural and artistic prowess and boundless riches. It was crazy to imagine that people once lived among this masterpiece.

 

 

Our group had meant to hit several different sites that evening but we spent so much time in Topkapi Palace, we didn’t even see everything there. Instead, we made our way towards the bridge and got fish sandwiches. Getting fish sandwiches from the bridge is one of those things you’re just supposed to do while you’re in that area, but honestly, it was just ok. I think the fish is super fresh or something like that, but it’s not the best fish sandwich I’ve ever had. Plus the whole thing is so commercialized, it’s just a long row of restaurants selling the same thing and really loud guys trying to get you to come sit at their place.

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On our way back towards the bridge (the location is under the bridge and just one side of it), we saw some fried dough we were interested in trying. As we were looking at the prices and trying to figure out what it was, these two boys started freaking out about seeing me. They wanted a picture immediately! I said, sure, if they gave me the dessert for free (hey, if you can’t beat the situation, take advantage of it, right?). They eagerly nodded and got on either side of me for their photo. They were being a bit grabby though and kept asking for a kiss, so Alp told them he was my boyfriend and inserted himself into the photo and wouldn’t let them stand directly next to me – at which one guy even exited the photo.

Jasmine tried to capture the shenanigans and I couldn’t stop laughing the entire time. Although, in retrospect, it’s really not funny. The sexualization of Black women is a truly detrimental issue. When the photoshoot was all said and done, I didn’t even get the basket of dessert that was being sold. I got one small piece. Major side eye at these two idiots. I don’t even think they work there.

Finally we walked across the bridge, which was a truly beautiful site. We made our way to Galata Tower, picking up a few souvenirs as we went. The tower wasn’t as tall as everyone made it sound. We tried to walk to Taksim Square but got distracted and danced the rest of the night at a bar.

 

Day 4 – Grand Bazaar, Asia side and Taksim Square

Today was the day to hit up the Grand Bazaar and head to the Asia side. After surviving Senegalese and Nigerian markets, the Grand Bazaar honestly wasn’t much. Like many things in Istanbul, it has stood there for many years. Like any big market, you had people calling from all directions selling the same things. We bought a few more souvenirs here and moved on with our day. (It really wasn’t as simple as it sounds, we were there for several hours. We spent most of it in this one scarf shop and got treated to Turkish tea).

 


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We walked through Eminenou (another market-like area) and the Spice Bazaar (only parts of it had spice, it was mostly just another Grand Bazaar, but smaller and with some people selling spices). We took a ferry to the Asia side of Istanbul and walked around. We had the original Iskendar Kebab! None of us were that hungry and decided to just split one plate, but it was too good and we had to get another plate. We met the current owner of the restaurant (it’s been a family business for five generations now). We’re lucky we had Alp to lead us there!

Back in the Europe side, we finally walked to Taksim Square. It took FOREVER to walk there along Istiklal Road!! And Taksim Square was literally just an open area with a statue. A very important statue of course, but for that walk…not sure. Taksim Square is where protests and other important gatherings are held. Despite the very long road, it was a very eventful walk. We stopped for desserts and music and other interesting sites. At the square, we wrote our names on a lantern and let it float away. All in all a great day.

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Jasmine and I made plans to meet up with Harish and Alp to head the Princes’ Islands the next day. As Jasmine and I walked up the stairs of our building, we decided we really needed massages. We had been walking LONG distances everyday for the past four days. We made the decision to discover a Turkish Bath House for our last day instead. Definitely the best possible decision.

Day 5 – Miniaturk (almost) and Aga Hammam

 

Jasmine and I finally slept in. We got our affairs in order for the following day – we were both flying out of Turkey, but to different locations.

We decided we would go see Miniaturk before heading to the Bath House. Miniaturk a park with 1:25 ratio replicas of important buildings throughout Turkey and its history. It was supposed to be only a 20 minute walk from where we were staying, but of course it took much longer than that.
Not two feet from our building, we were stopped by some random lady who was way too excited to be seeing Black people. She wanted to touch our hair and kept talking in full sentences even after it was clear we had NO IDEA what she was saying. Her daughter (I’m assuming) was just amused, but didn’t stop her. It was amusing at first, but got a bit annoying when she would walk a bit ahead of us, turn around and go on chatting more. Really wish I knew what she was saying.

After stopping for some very local food, we continued on. It was such a beautiful and sunny day (all the other days had been cloudy), we couldn’t help but take LOTS of pictures by the water. We stopped and talked to more people I’m assuming have never seen a Black person – seriously people?!

Upon seeing Miniaturk from the entrance (it looked like a mini-golf course), realizing it was not free (only 10TL), and seeing what time it was, we decided we should just go ahead to the Bath House.

Aga Hamami was tucked away in a cute part of town and it took us a while to find it. I’m glad we found it though because it’s beautiful!! PLUS two Ghanians work there – what?? They told us that other Africans live here too, but they are all just doing their own thing, so it would be hard to say where they all hang out. The bath was MARVELOUS!! I would highly recommend it. I’ve never actually gone to a spa but this was an amazing first experience. Especially Aga Hamami. We were there around 5pm and there weren’t that many people.

The whole experience was pretty nice and straight forward. (Although, a friend of mine had a very different experience at the same place….link). You get a changing room, go to the bath area and poor water as hot or as cold as you want on yourself. When you’re all wet and the towel is sticking to you, you head to the steam room. This was AMAZING. So hot. Hotter than any sauna I’ve been in. And it smelled like Vicks!! So good. When you can’t take it anymore, you go back to the bath place. That is where guys get scrubbed and foamed. But girls get taken to a side room. The lady, mostly naked herself, just takes of your towel ( you can have a bathing suit, your undies, or nothing under) and directs you where to lay.

The scrub takes of the dead skin cells that you just sweated off in the steam room. Foam washes you. She rinses you and you get sent upstairs to be massaged. It was a oil massage and face mask. You go back downstairs and sip some tea while your clay hardens. When your face is ready they tell you to go rinse it off. Then you come down again for some rose water to splash on your face. All of that (and you can pay for as many or as few parts of it as you want), was 120TL, which is only about $42.

We got a slice of delicious pizza for only for 3TL then met Harish and Alp for dinner. We ate Kumpir ( stuffed potato – don’t leave Istanbul without trying it) at a place next to the pizza place!

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The boys walked us back to Taksim Sqaure and we said our goodbyes.

And so ended our journey in the famous Istanbul. Where continents, cultures, languages and various peoples (expect Black people I guess), have met for centuries. It’s definitely a worthwhile visit for anyone, but history buffs will be particularly enthralled by this marvelous city.
Yours,

Omolayo Nkem
P.S. Sorry, I suck at conclusions, but let’s be honest, you were already tired of reading. I’ll try my hardest to try and make shorter posts. Any suggestions on how to do that are welcome. But constructive criticism only. Be tactful. Thanks friends.

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